Monday, April 14, 2014

"Dept. of Speculation," by Jenny Offill

Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation” (Knopf, 2014) is a small, original, compelling novel-in-a-non-novel-format. I was first put off by the description of the novel’s unusual format; I sometimes find myself quite traditional about such innovations. But the reviews have been heady, practically rapturous, so I succumbed and read the unorthodox novel. The whole novel, divided into chapters, consists of short, discontinuous chunks of prose, set off as if they are freestanding paragraphs, but not indented, and not flowing one into another. Some of them connect one to the next fairly explicitly, but many do not. However, somehow, bit by bit, they build a story. Or I should say, yes, a story, but more, a snapshot of a woman who is struggling. The narrator and main character, who sometimes calls herself “I” and sometimes “the wife,” has written one book and now cannot seem to write another, mainly because she has been derailed by marriage and motherhood. She is often in despair at her inability to write, at her baby daughter’s constant crying, and at the troubles in her marriage. Yet there are moments of happiness with her husband and her baby, and a fierce love for both, especially the latter. This young woman also has various friends who are sometimes a great comfort to her. The voice of this narrator/character is strong, individual,and striking. And the structure that I dreaded as being “experimental” (regular readers of this blog know I am not fond of such writing) was very readable; it “worked.” So now I understand the rave reviews, and add my own praise to that of others. Highly recommended.

Friday, April 11, 2014

John Updike's Use of "Real Life" in his Fiction

Are you sometimes curious about how much of a given author’s work comes from “real life”? I am. New York magazine (3/24/14) gives us at least a partial answer in the case of John Updike. In an excerpt from his forthcoming biography of Updike, Adam Begley tells of several cases where Updike used his own experiences, and those of others, almost exactly in his fiction. In one case, for example, journalist William Ecenbarger, after an interview with Updike, was “astonished to find…Updike had transcribed – verbatim – their exchanges” in a New Yorker story, and had included many details of their time together. Apparently Updike openly acknowledged his common use of real events and remarks, using a “startling simile” (in Begley’s words), as follows (Updike’s words): “We walk through volumes of the unexpressed and like snails leave behind a faint thread excreted out of ourselves.” In other words, Updike says further, “The artist who works in words and anecdotes, images and facts wants to share with us nothing less than his digested life.” The image is slightly off-putting, but captures a sort of pragmatic laser focus on his work that he feels is necessary. To quote Begley further, on Updike’s using scraps of his life and of others’ lives: “No one was spared; not his parents, not his two wives, not his four children.” Updike once wrote that “the nearer and dearer they are, the more mercilessly they are served up.” And Updike’s eldest son, David, said in a public television interview that his father “decided at an early age that his writing had to take precedence over his relations with real people”; Updike himself agreed that this was true. This is sad and disturbing, yet perhaps understandable. In a novel I just finished reading, Jenny Offill’s “Dept. of Speculation,” the narrator plans and longs (and fails) to be an “art monster,” someone who is totally dedicated to her art and allows nothing, no human connections, to get in the way of that. Perhaps this is the dilemma of many writers and other artists: on some level they feel they have to choose whether they are in “all in” regarding their art, or whether they will allow human connections to come first, and possibly to distract them from or dilute their artistic work. What a terrible dilemma this is, if in fact this is a choice many feel they have to make. I cannot say whether such a choice is absolutely necessary, but it seems to me that many great writers have also been good children, spouses, parents, and friends, without sacrificing their loved ones to their art. However, I could be wrong.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

"The Days of Anna Madrigal," by Armistead Maupin

I have lived in San Francisco long enough to have read Armistead Maupin’s first iterations of “Tales of the City” as they were serialized in the San Francisco Chronicle in the mid-70s, when I had very newly arrived here. These stories of new and established, young and old, gay and straight, struggling and rich residents of San Francisco were an instant hit, and we readers eagerly awaited each installment. Part of the fun was reading about local places and institutions we recognized, and learning about corners of the city and its various lifestyles that we hadn't known about. Since then Maupin has written nine volumes in the Tales of the City series, published between 1978 and 2014, most of which I have read, as well as a TV mini-series, starring the wonderful Laura Linney, which I watched with enjoyment some years ago. The ninth volume, and according to Maupin, the final one, has just been published; it is “The Days of Anna Madrigal” (Harper, 2014). This novel reunites us with the beloved characters we have followed over the years, but has a bittersweet sense of endings. As with the earlier novels, this one checks in on the lives of Michael Tolliver (now in a happy relationship with his younger husband, Ben), Mary Ann Singleton, and other main characters. The focus this time, as the title indicates, is the aging Anna Madrigal, who was the landlady of the building where the characters met and lived back in the beginning, when Michael and Mary Ann were very young and very new to San Francisco. Anna, who is transgendered, has always been the heart of the group, the surrogate mother, the source of wisdom and support and humor and, oh yes, of a seemingly bottomless supply of neatly rolled joints to be shared with her friends. Now that she is aging and needs help from the devoted young Jake (also transgendered) and other friends, she has to conserve her energy, but with the help of her friends, she is able to fulfill her wish to revisit the town she came from so long ago and to resolve a longstanding regret she has had about her first young love there. This novel also takes many of the characters on a trip to Burning Man. Although the writing is perhaps not for the ages, the characters are as compelling as always, and feel like old friends to those of us who have followed them all these decades. Maupin himself has moved to Santa Fe with his husband, but he is clearly still very fond of and connected to San Francisco. He and his work will always be symbols of the exciting times in this city when life opened up in so many ways for the young people who arrived here, looking for freedom to be themselves. Thank you, Armistead Maupin, for all these years of engaging stories and characters, and for what amounts to an extended love letter to San Francisco.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Ludmilla Petrushevskaya

Do you know who Ludmilla Petrushevskaya is? If you do, you know more than I did, until I read William Deresiewicz's 3/24/14 article, "Dread and Wonder," in The Nation magazine. He says that she has won many major awards, is Russia's leading dramatist, and is widely thought to be "its leading author of fiction, the mother of contemporary women's writing in the country." He even speculates that she may at some point be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. I am somewhat chagrined to know nothing of this clearly important writer. Reading about her reminds me of how, in some ways, provincial my reading is. Although I do read widely, I mostly read contemporary American and British novels, with only a smattering of fiction from other countries, sometimes translated. I have read many of the classics from around the world, such as the Russian writers Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, etc., and the French writers Balzac, Zola, Flaubert, Proust, and Colette, to name a few, but most of these I read a long time ago, in some cases as long ago as college and grad school. The Nation article about this prominent Russian writer, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, has nudged me to resolve to read more contemporary fiction from more countries, including translations from a variety of languages.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

"Still Life with Bread Crumbs," by Anna Quindlen

Anna Quindlen’s novels are always intelligent, moving, and entertaining. Some might say they “go down easy” and that is probably a fair characterization, but belies what a gift it is to be able to write fiction of that quality. Quindlen never disappoints, and I for one have read, and will read, whatever she writes. Her latest (2014) novel is “Still Life with Bread Crumbs” and I happily listened to it on CD in my car over a couple of recent weeks. I love the heroine of this novel, artist Rebecca Winter. I love that she is 60ish, and torn between feeling, on the one hand, very vital and, on the other hand, feeling over the hill, both in her art (photography) and in her personal life. She is worried about money, especially since she supports, in varying degrees, her elderly mother and father as well as her young son. To save money, she rents out her New York City apartment and takes a one year lease on a cabin in the woods a couple of hours away from the city. The cabin turns out to be less than ideal, but gradually Rebecca makes a life for herself there. She finds important objects to photograph, meets quirky local residents, develops a relationship with a new man, survives getting snowed in for several days, and acquires a dog. Various events complicate matters, of course. I won’t tell you the ending, but let’s say that she has some satisfying (for her, and for us readers) new success in both her professional and personal life.

Monday, March 24, 2014

"Leap Year," by Peter Cameron

Reading Peter Cameron’s novel “Leap Year” (Harper & Row, 1990) reminded me of the question of whether to read earlier fiction by an author you have just read for the first time and enjoyed. If you are fortunate, you will read all her/his earlier fiction and enjoy and appreciate it all. But in some cases, you will find that – not unnaturally – the earlier fiction is weaker, less developed, than the recent novel you are so taken with. This latter is basically what just happened to me with “Leap Year.” I had been thrilled to “discover” Peter Cameron through his stunning 2012 novel “Coral Glynn” (which I posted about here on 5/1/12), and then looked for and read his 2006 novel, “The City of My Final Destination,” which I also liked very much, although a little less than “Coral Glynn,” and posted about on 5/19/12. Recently I ran across and picked up “Leap Year,” written 20-plus years earlier than “Coral Glynn,” and found it entertaining but rather glib, with far less depth and maturity than the later novel. “Leap Year," Cameron’s first novel, is the story of a group of friends in New York City in the 1980s. There is much about love, sex, family, life changes, careers, occasional violence, and the city of New York itself. I definitely kept reading with some interest, but it is not a novel I will long remember. So to go back to my question of whether to read earlier fiction by a writer you have just discovered: I have no definitive answer, but I suggest at least checking out the writer’s earlier work, through reviews or browsing. I know I am not able to resist doing so.

Friday, March 21, 2014

"Bark," by Lorrie Moore

Many readers, I among them, have been waiting for a new collection of short stories from the well respected writer Lorrie Moore, and now it has arrived; it was worth the wait. “Bark” (Knopf, 2014) contains eight stories, each a small marvel. Moore understands human nature well, and conveys the strangeness, sadness, and humor of life, somehow all intertwined; her tone is acerbic yet humane, and quite wonderful. She writes about love, marriage, divorce, children, family, jobs, and death. She uncovers her characters’ weaknesses and fear, making readers understand and feel for these sometimes odd but very relatable people. There are real events in the background: 9/11, the Iraq war, and more. But the stories are character-driven, which I appreciate. Stepping back from writing about this particular collection, I want to note that although I am a great fan of short stories, it is much harder (for me, at least) to “review”/comment on a collection of short stories than to review a novel. It is hard to convey the same sense of specificity. But I do want to convey that this is a strong and compelling collection.
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